At State Department, the Democratic front-runner and an aide softened their stance against letting Tehran enrich uranium
WASHINGTON—Hillary Clinton, in her last months as secretary of state, helped open the door to a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Iran: an acceptance that Tehran would maintain at least some capacity to produce nuclear fuel, according to current and former U.S. officials.
In July 2012, Mrs. Clinton’s closest foreign-policy aide, Jake Sullivan, met in secret with Iranian diplomats in Oman, but made no progress in ending the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. In a string of high-level meetings here over the next six months, the secretary of state and White House concluded that they might have to let Iran continue to enrich uranium at small levels, if the diplomacy had any hope of succeeding.
“She recognized the difficulty of reaching a solution with zero enrichment,” said Mr. Sullivan, who now serves as Mrs. Clinton’s top campaign adviser on both domestic issues and foreign policy.
Mrs. Clinton left the State Department in early 2013. Later that year, in the midst of international talks, the Obama administration agreed publicly that Iran could continue to enrich uranium, completing the shift in policy that had been set in motion before Mrs. Clinton left her post.
Mrs. Clinton’s role in this critical early debate hasn’t been previously reported and shows that the Democratic presidential front-runner and her top aide, Mr. Sullivan, were key players in the Iran deal. Given united Republican opposition to the deal, the issue is likely to be central in the 2016 election.
Mrs. Clinton on Wednesday will deliver a major address on the Iran agreement and will voice support for President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy initiative, which has gained sufficient support from Democratic senators in recent days to take effect.
She will also seek to assuage skeptics of the deal, which include the majority of Congress and many American Jews, by stressing that as president she would vigorously guard against Tehran cheating on the agreement and would increasingly challenge Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
This will include maintaining financial pressure on Tehran, potentially through additional sanctions on Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to her aides. She also referred to possible military action, telling NBC News last Friday that “no options were off the table” for confronting Tehran, if it is found to cheat on the nuclear deal.
“I think the American people are going to want a president who supports diplomacy…but who will also get up every day and enforce the agreement,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Republicans believe Mrs. Clinton’s deep role in the Iran diplomacy will make her vulnerable in the coming campaign. They note that successive U.S. administrations, including Mr. Obama’s initially, opposed Iran enriching uranium, on the grounds that the nuclear fuel can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
“The cave on enrichment wasn’t just any concession,” said former Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday.
Mrs. Clinton has taken a hawkish stance toward Iran throughout her career. In the 2008 presidential campaign, she called Mr. Obama “naive” for believing he could directly negotiate with Iran’s theocratic regime.
But after she became Mr. Obama’s secretary of state in 2009, Mrs. Clinton and top aides worked to hold direct talks with Iran in Kabul on the future of Afghanistan, according to Clinton aides. In 2010, after a Tehran request, the State Department sanctioned a Pakistan-based militant group, Jundullah, for terrorist attacks against Iran. A year later, Mrs. Clinton promoted an increase of visas issued to Iranian students, another step sought by Tehran.
In 2012, Mrs. Clinton dispatched Mr. Sullivan, her deputy chief of staff, to Muscat to lead the first one-on-one talks with Iran on the nuclear issue. Iranian diplomats expressed disappointment that July with the initial progress, according to attendees. Mr. Sullivan, just 35 years old at the time, seemed too young to the Iranians to spearhead a serious effort to end the decadelong standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. also wasn’t yet prepared to concede that Iran would be allowed to maintain thousands of centrifuge machines it had installed to enrich uranium.
After this first round stalled, the Obama administration reviewed its position, according to current and former U.S. officials involved in the process.
The issue of allowing uranium enrichment in Iran had bedeviled the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Both were of the view that Iran shouldn’t be allowed to deploy any centrifuge machines.
The United Nations Security Council demanded in six resolutions starting in 2006 that Tehran suspend its enrichment program, citing violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But in high-level gatherings held after the first Muscat meeting, Obama administration officials concluded the diplomacy likely wouldn’t succeed without enrichment on the table. Mrs. Clinton hated the idea of allowing Iran that capacity, said her aides, but became open to a change in policy if Tehran agreed to serious restrictions on its nuclear program. But she hadn’t committed to the shift or to enrichment on a large scale, they said.
“By the time she left, her position was: ‘I’m not an absolute firm hard ‘no’ on enrichment.…Let’s see how it unfolds and reserve judgment on whether we’d accept enrichment until a later date,’ ” said a Clinton campaign foreign-affairs adviser.
After Mrs. Clinton left the State Department, Mr. Sullivan became Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser at the White House. From there, he continued negotiating with the Iranians for another two years. He is credited, along with former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, with developing much of the framework for the nuclear agreement eventually reached in Vienna this July.
Under the final deal, Iran’s centrifuge program would be reduced to 5,000 machines from nearly 20,000. But Iran is allowed to expand this capacity to an industrial scale after a decade.
After leaving the State Department, Mrs. Clinton said in an interview with Atlantic Media that she preferred Iran have no enrichment capacity.
Mrs. Clinton has thrown her support behind the Iran deal since it was forged on July 14, though with caveats. On the day it was announced, Mrs. Clinton was on Capitol Hill meeting with congressional Democrats. In those sessions, she spoke favorably of the agreement, but didn’t offer a full-throated endorsement, according to lawmakers who met with her.
It wasn’t until late into the evening on July 14 that she issued a public statement of support. Even then, she highlighted her concerns, including the need for strict enforcement, and suggested she would try to defuse tensions between the Obama White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mrs. Clinton and her campaign team—including Mr. Sullivan and campaign chairmanJohn Podesta—have regularly reached out to opponents of the Iran deal in recent weeks, including American Jewish leaders.
Mrs. Clinton has said she would stress the need to challenge Iran, in part by strengthening military support for Israel and the U.S.’s Persian Gulf allies. She is also focused on keeping financial pressure on Tehran.
In conversations with Jewish allies who oppose the deal, the campaign’s high command has emphasized these concerns and how she would address them as president.
“She is absolutely insistent that all of us, starting with her, understand and acknowledge the concerns, recognize them as legitimate, underscore that we get it,” the senior aide said.
The outreach to the Jewish community appears to be working. A number of Jewish leaders said they remained deeply concerned about the agreement, but said Mrs. Clinton wasn’t facing the same type of criticism as Mr. Obama. They credited her low profile since the deal was announced; a sense that she doesn’t fully approve of the deal, even though she is backing it; a belief that she would take a tough line against Iran if elected president; and her long relationship with Jewish leaders.
“Her history and her personal relationships give her credibility and the benefit of the doubt that the president just doesn’t get,” said Jarrod Bernstein, who managed relations with the Jewish community for Mr. Obama’s White House and who, with his wife, recently hosted a Clinton fundraiser at his home.
Still, even her supporters say she will be politically targeted. “In the general election, this is going to be the Obama-Clinton Iran deal,” said Greg Rosenbaum, who heads the National Jewish Democratic Council. “They’re going to need to be prepared at every stop to defend the Iran deal.”
Wednesday’s speech will go into detail about how she thinks concerns with Iran and with the nuclear deal can be mitigated, and how the deal can be enforced and “embedded in a broader regional strategy,” an aide said.
“It is a rigorous and robust and clear-eyed strategy that does not proceed from the premise that this is going to change Iran’s orientation,” the aide said. “We need to confront [Iran] outside the nuclear context on all these other issues.”